Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Stacks of Soay - St Kilda

One of the many highlights of a visit to Kilda is traversing the narrow channel between Soay and Hirta. It is especially exciting if the sea and wind are opposing each other. Lying at the narrowest part of the passage are Stac Biorach (the pointy stack, 236 feet high), and Sòthaigh Stac (Soay Stac, 200 feet high).

The channel narrows in to 200 feet as the ship threads its way between the 500 foot high cliffs of Hirta on the one side, and Soay Stac on the other. 

Approaching the passage

Approaching the passage - from left to right are Soay, Stach Biorach, Soay Stac and Hirta
As you approach the stacks it is easy to see how they were once part of a land-bridge between Soay and Hirta.

The Soay stacks seen from Hirta

As its name implies, Stac Biorach is a pointy rock rising out of the sea, and is said to be the hardest of all the Kilda stacks to climb. This description of the climb, which I found in Haswell-Smith's The Scottish Islands, dates to 1698:

...after they landed, a man having room for but one of his feet, he must climb up 12 or 16 fathoms high. Then he comes to a place where having but room for his left foot and left hand, he must leap from thence to another place before him, which if hit right the rest of the ascent is easy. But if he misseth that footstep he falls into the sea.

Stac Biorach
Based on that description, I don't think a climb up Stac Biorach is in my future. I've not come across descriptions of a climb up Soay Stac, but it looks just as daunting. A tunnel pierces it completely through the middle, which when approaching from the south makes the stack look like a crouching otter. 

Soay Stac - crouching otter?
Over the years I have been fortunate to have made this passage about four times. Three of those were in calm seas, but the last one was the best, as the wind and sea were roiling, and if conditions had been any worse I doubt if we'd have tried to motor through.

Looking back to the stacks after traversing the passage in calm seas
The exciting passage between Soay and Hirta is not usually done by the day-boat trips to Kilda, so if you want to do it your best bet is on one of the six or nine night cruises offered by Northern Light Cruising Company.

From left to right - Hirta, Soay Stac, Stac Biorach, Soay

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cross of Cave Bay - Rum

One of the most interesting short walks on Rum is to see the cross of Bàgh na h-Uamha (Cave Bay). To get there follow the Dibidil path for a mile until it reaches Allt Mor na Uamha, the Big Stream of the Caves. Leave the trail here and go cross-country to the west, following the stream as it tumbles down to the sea via a series of rocky waterfalls.

Looking west from Cave Bay to Hallival and the Dibidil track
Cave Bay is the site of an old settlement, and here you'll find the low outlines of several cottages pushing up through the turf. Just below the ruins, and above the rocky beach, stands a four-foot tall stone pillar. Incised into the top of the pillar is a Greek cross, four equal arms with flared ends. Carved in the seventh or eighth century, this cross style fell out of fashion at some point, as it had been later modified into a Latin style cross by doubling the length of the vertical arm to create a shaft.

The stone had been found lying prone on the beach in the 1970s, and re-erected a safe distance above the surf in 1982. Is this a Christianized standing stone, like St Taran’s Cross on Taransay?  Or did an early monk, perhaps St Beccan of Rum, originally put the stone up as a cross?  I don’t know the answer. But if you ever visit Bàgh na h-Uamha you’ll have plenty of silence to think about it. This tranquil spot sees few visitors. Most who come to Rum go up high to traverse the Rum Cuillins. Others come to see the wild-life: the deer, or the shearwaters nesting on Hallival. I saw nary a soul on my journey to Cave Bay, and I doubt if you will either.

Eigg seen from Cave Bay

See this CANMORE page for more on the cross of Cave Bay.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eilean Mhuire of the Shiants

One of the many Islands I hope to return to in the next year or two is Eilean Mhuire of the Shiants.

Eilean Mhuire seen from Garbh Eilean
Of the three Shiant islands, Eilean Mhuire is probably the least visited. Most people are set ashore on the stone isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Garbh Eilean, and then make their way up onto Eilean Tighe. But to get onto Eilean Mhuire is a little more challenging. It requires being set ashore at the base of a small, rocky inlet. And if there is any swell, or wind, it can be a difficult landing.

If you do manage to get ashore, you then have to climb 160 feet up a steep hillside. When I made the climb in 2003, there was a handy rope dangling down the hill to grab hold of. (I do not know if the rope is still there.) It was worth the climb, for the top of the island is a beautiful, and relatively flat plateau, covered in verdant grass and dotted with a several ponds. 

For me, Eilean Mhuire has two attractive features: its massive colony of puffins, and the ruin of an old chapel. The name of the chapel, and the island, are usually said to refer to Mary. But I've always wondered if they actually refer to St Maelrubha. An old name for the Shiants is Na Eileanan Mòra: which usually translates to the Big Isles, and these islands are certainly not big. So it's possible the Eilean Mhuire name may be a corruption of 'Island Mor', and many 'Mòr' place names in the Hebrides are dedications to St Maelrubha.

Chapel Ruin - embedded in what may have been an old burial mound
Another clue that the dedication may be to Maelrubha is that he would have certainly visited the Shiants, as they lie on a direct route from his monastery at Applecross to Maruig, a small settlement 15 miles to the west on Lewis, and Teampull Mor, a chapel near the Butt of Lewis. Both of those places are said to be dedicated to Maelrubha. 

The next two photos show some of the acres of old cultivation ridges that cover the island. Eilean Mhuire was fertile in its time. Of the 500 acres of land that make up the three Shiant isles, only 30 were arable, and half of that was on Eilean Mhuire.

Crisscross cultivation ridges on Eilean Mhuire

Eastern tip of Eilean Mhuire
The few dwellings on Eilean Mhuire were basic, turf covered structures, visible today only as grass-grown mounds.

Old turf-covered structures
In May and June the puffins on the Shiants are a sight to behold - truly amazing. At times the sky is filled with tens of thousands flying back and forth between the sea and their burrows in the scree of Garbh Eilean, and the steep slopes of Eilean Mhuire. 

Puffin burrows on Eilean Mhuire - Garbh Eilean in the distance
Getting off the island is as exciting as getting on to it, as you have to descend the near vertical hillside. To do that I held the rope in one hand, and slowly slid down on my side, every now and then digging my boots into the little grassy ledges created by grazing sheep.

Descending the rope - Eilean Mhuire
I hope to return to Eilean Mhuire. Its tricky landing, especially if there is any swell, followed by the rope climb, make for an exhilarating island visit.

Eilean Mhuire departure

Monday, February 27, 2017

Through the Sea-Gate - Ensay

One of my favourite island books is Alasdair Alpin MacGregor's Searching the Hebrides with a Camera (1933). I acquired the book in 1992, and while reading it I first learned about the island of Ensay. 

Searching the Hebrides with a Camera was one of MacGregor's earliest books. In 1993 I came across his very last book: An Island Here and There (published in 1972, two years after his death). In it is a chapter entitled Enchanted Isles, where MacGregor reminisces about his visits to Ensay some 40 years after they occurred. Ensay made such an impression on MacGregor that I had to visit the island. But five years would pass before the opportunity arose in 1998 (see chapter 13 of book 2).

Ensay House, Chapel, and standing-stone (upper right)

The way MacGregor described arriving on Ensay via the sea-gate, struck a chord in my mind: words I found memorable.

I enter the precincts of Ensay House by the sea-gate, which is reached by a stone staircase leading up from the sands, and the fringe of straws and shrivelled seawrack left by high tides.... For a moment I am back in the Middle Ages when I gaze at the old wall flanking the garden, and the chapel standing nearby.

Ensay House and the sea-gate (1998)
And so when I landed on Ensay in '98 I made a point of entering the grounds of the house via the sea-gate. I was fortunate that there were people staying in the house at the time. They invited me in and handed me an ancient set of rusting keys, pointing out the one for Christchurch chapel. The chapel is mostly 16th century, but bits date to the 11th. As I entered it, it felt like I, too, was back in the Middle Ages.

Christchurch Chapel (1998)

In the chapel

The keys to Ensay
Although I've not been back to Ensay since 1998, I've sailed by a dozen times in the intervening years. The most recent was in May of 2016 aboard the ship Hjalmar Bjorge. After a visit to Boreray in the Sound of Harris, we motored past Ensay on our way to the Shiants. The sun was shining, and Ensay looked beautiful. Oh how I wished we'd had time to go ashore so that I could ascend the sea-gate once again after an 18 year absence, and nearly ninety years since Alasdair Alpin MacGregor.

Ensay House and Chapel (2016)

A young visitor at the sea-gate in '98

Thursday, February 23, 2017

John MacDonald of the Ardveg (1933 - 2016)

I just learned of the death of John MacDonald on Christmas Day 2016. I only met John once. It was at the Uig Community Centre on June 29, 2013 for the launch of his book An Trusadh - Memories of Crofting in the Ardveg.

Regular readers will know that the Ardveg is one of my favourite places in the isles. It is so remote, that staying there is akin to a retreat on an island in the sea. I've been privileged to have visited Ardveg on three occasions. On two of those I camped next to the old blackhouses, one of which John lived in before his father built a new house nearby in 1934.

A.A.MacGregor's photo of Ardveg in the early 1930s
Ardveg in 2001
An Ardveg campsite
I can't think of a better island experience that reading John's book An Trusadh (which means the gathering), and then making the long hike in to see Ardveg first-hand. We are fortunate John left a fascinating record of what life was like growing up in Ardveg before he passed.

My condolences to John's family. He was a remarkable man who will be missed. See this Northern Times page for an excellent article about his life, and this link which will take you to posts on Ardveg written over the past four years.

Photo of John MacDonald at Ardveg from the back cover of An Trusadh

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Long and Winding Road Walk - Lewis

Last August I made a three day hike on Lewis, a walk that started at Morsgail (see the Ardveg Walk tab). I left the area by hiking out from Ardveg up the Hamanavay track to the public road at Uig. The plan was I'd call my wife to come pick me up when I reached the road, and she would drive over to get me from the self catering house we were staying at in Valtos, six miles from where the Hamanavay track meets the road. (See Valtos Cottage Self Catering).

The cottage has an amazing view to the north over Loch Roag and the island of Pabay Mor.

But I made a serious mistake. I had not checked if there was mobile phone coverage in Uig. And when I reached the road above the white sands of Uig Beach, around 8pm, I powered up the phone only to find there was no signal. I'd told my wife if she did not hear from me I'd decided to spend another night under the stars. But I was out of food, and sore from 20 miles of bog-hopping and the long climb up the Hamanavay track. And so a soak in a tub and a beer sounded better than another night in the tent. There was nothing to do but start walking the road to Valtos, thinking that at some point either the phone would get a signal, or I could hitch a ride. 

After 10 minutes of walking I passed the Abhainn Dearg distillery. Unfortunately it was closed, so I'd find no refreshment there. I continued on, checking my phone every now and then only to find there was still no signal. A mile later I passed the turn-off to Ardroil Beach. It would have been a great place to camp, and in hindsight I should have done that, but the thought of a bath and beer kept me going. Only two cars had passed by so far; the drivers must have been tourists - they didn't stop when I stuck my thumb out.

After another half hour it was getting dark. Having covered some 20 miles so far that day my legs were giving out. So when I reached the road that comes up from Loch Stacavat I turned right and followed it a ways until I saw a field that looked like a good spot to camp. The field was gated. I could not open the gate, so I climbed it and found a spot to pitch the tent out on the moorland.

I was dead-tired, asleep in no time. Up a 6am I started walking again. An hour's walk took me to the Uig shop. I was hoping to use their phone, but they were closed. More walking led past the Uig Community Centre and into the entrance of Glen Valtos; the largest glacial meltwater channel in the Outer Hebrides.

I still had three miles to go to reach the cottage in Valtos village where my wife was comfortably sleeping. There was still no phone signal, and as it was early, there had been no cars on the road yet. What I didn't know at the time was that a possible environmental disaster was happening that very moment; an oil rig had broke its tow-rope and had just grounded on Dalmore Beach. And so someone was out on the road early, driving up to Dalmore to help out. I saw them approach from behind, stuck out my thumb, and they gave me a ride to the Valtos turnoff. (Thanks Ian!)

A look at my phone showed there was still no service. So there was nothing to do but keep walking. Forty-five minutes later, a hundred yards from home, the phone finally got a signal. I called my wife to tell her I was almost there, and she met me on the road with a cold carton of Ribena. A drink never tasted so good. Lesson learned: don't ever count on getting a phone signal while hiking in the islands, even in areas that are populated.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Bearasaigh - The Pirate's Isle

There is a little island in the outer reaches of Loch Roag I've always wanted to visit. The island is Bearasaigh, which had a brief moment of fame in the 1600s.

For a few years in the early seventeenth century, Neil MacLeod and forty of his followers had a stronghold on Bearasay. From this small isle they launched raids against the “Gentlemen Adventurers” sent to Lewis by James VI to “civilize” the Outer Hebrides. Bearasaigh was a good choice for a stronghold. It is cliff-girt, with just one, easily defend-able, sloping rock slab that allows access to the top of the island. They eventually caught Neil by stranding family members in a boat tied to a tidal rock near the island. Neil and his band surrendered in order to save them. Neil managed to escape after that, but was recaptured and ended up swinging from an Edinburgh scaffold in 1613.

In chapter 16 of his book Behold the Hebrides, Alasdair Alpin Macgregor recounts the story of Neil Macleod, which you can read at this link.

I've always wanted to get ashore on Bearasaigh to see if there are any remains of Neil's encampment on the island. But to do so would require an expensive day-charter of a RIB on a very calm day, and so I've put it off for many years. But I was able to get a close up view of the rock slab that gives access to Bearasaigh during a tour around the islands of Loch Roag last August. It was a miserable, cold, and wet day, as you can tell from the rain-smears on the following photo of the landing spot. It was evident that a scramble to the top of the island on those rocks would be exciting.

A wet-lens view of the way up Bearasaigh
On the same boat trip we took a look at the oil rig grounded at Dalmore, six miles away. If the wind and tide had been different Bearasaigh might of been in the headlines after a 400 year absence.